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  • Stewardship meetings – some suggestions

    Using facilitators

    Good governance aids good consultation by creating the right environment and empowering those involved. But it is the quality of the collective contributions that determines whether or not the effort has been worthwhile, and the way in which the ATO uses that output that is the ultimate test of success.

    Where the issue is sufficiently significant, or its ramifications sufficiently extensive, use of a facilitator can produce better outcomes. The positive experience some stewardship groups have had in using facilitators on occasions supports this view. The ATO Consultation Hub has a list of facilitators.

    Suggestion 6

    Consideration should be given to stewardship groups using facilitators where the issue on which advice is sought is sufficiently significant, or its ramifications sufficiently extensive.

    Encouraging discussion

    As noted earlier, the role of a chair is to ensure that meetings run more smoothly and that discussion flows freely, ensuring that everyone contributes and that their point-of-view is heard.

    The chair’s ability to fulfil that roll will be materially facilitated if the agenda properly prioritises matters for discussion and is not too cluttered. An over-ambitious agenda results in a need to rush through items in order to complete the agenda in the allotted time. It will also be facilitated if briefing papers are provided in advance, everyone has read the papers and comes prepared for discussion and presenters of papers keeps their introductory remarks brief.

    Suggestion 7

    As the objective on consultation is for the ATO to obtain advice, the emphasis in meetings should be on providing briefing papers in advance, expecting everyone to have read the papers, having a very brief introduction on the subject and encouraging dynamic discussion.

    Challenge panels

    The concept of challenge panelsExternal Link originated in the United Kingdom, where they are used by policy makers to look at existing policies and well-developed ideas to identify weaknesses and issues and consider how to improve them. Panels of experts test and provide constructive challenges to the policies, from a ‘real world’ perspective.

    In one sense this is what stewardship groups do, but the difference is that, in the UK, panels consist of external experts specifically chosen for their expertise in the particular policy area and convened for the limited purpose of stress testing a specific policy or idea.

    While it is not suggested that additional panels of this nature should be set up, the ATO might consider the utility, from time-to-time of convening facilitated cross-stewardship group challenge sessions for some of the bigger issues to which the ATO is required to respond.

    Timing of meetings

    Some interviewees stated that there needs to be more notice given for some stewardship meetings. In relation to one stewardship group it was reported that the agenda was issued less than one week before the meeting. That may have been an isolated example but it is insufficient time or notice for the agenda to do it justice to the issues on it. As was pointed out, associations need time to discuss agenda items with their own committees or members. With another group the agenda is issued six weeks prior to the meeting.

    The issue of late agendas or meetings convened on short notice does not seem to be a wide-spread problem, but if not an isolated one it requires attention. The CSG should consider whether the ATO Consultation Hub should develop guidance on standard timetables for notices of meetings.

    Place of meetings

    Interviewees commented positively on the fact that not all stewardship meetings are held in Canberra. Holding meetings in other cities – especially Sydney and Melbourne – is not only convenient and a cost-saving for some, but it is also beneficial for the ATO executives involved. On occasions stewardship groups have gone a step further and met in the offices of a stakeholder association. That is to be encouraged.

    Structuring meetings

    One of the consequences of creating high level stewardship groups is that not every member will be interested in the full range of issues each is asked to consider. A number of interviewees commented on this and pointed out that different levels of interest in different aspects of the stewardship committee’s remit meant that at times issues on the agenda were only of marginal relevant to some.

    An interviewee suggested that, in order to deal with this issue, agendas might be structured in three segments – the first dealing with matters of interest to one segment of the membership, the second issues common to all members and the third matters of interest to another segment of the membership. If structured in that way, members who choose to do so can come for the segments of particular interest to them or for the entire meeting as they think fit.

    Clear advice

    The survey included a question on the accuracy of group records. As Table 8 shows, 77% of respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with their accuracy. Only 3% were dissatisfied but 20% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. This indicates that, while there is not a significant issue to be addressed, some groups may benefit from improvement in the process of arriving at and recording outcomes.

    A review of the minutes on the ATO website indicates that, for some but not all stewardship groups, the advice and outcomes from meetings are not as clear as they could be. Minutes secretaries may benefit from sessions organised by the Hub to provide guidance on techniques for recording outcomes. In addition, stewardship groups may benefit from a discussion at their meetings on how to improve the clarity of the advice they want to provide, or the outcomes to be recommended.

    The addition, on the consultation website, key messages is a positive approach that should be commended to those stewardship groups that do not currently follow that course.

    Meeting outcomes

    The survey included a question on how the outcomes are taken into account. As Table 9 shows, 71% of respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with the way outcomes are taken into account. However, 9% were dissatisfied and 20% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.

    Although the positive response was strong, the negative responses indicate that there may be an issue to be considered here. On the one hand, there were suggestions, in the interviews, that feedback once a decision is taken may not be as clear as it could be. On the other hand, it may be that some of the negative or neutral responses resulted from respondents not being satisfied with the decision taken by the ATO. It is not necessary or productive to seek to resolve the matter. It is sufficient to note that, effective consultation requires clear and consistent feedback at each step in the process of development of a policy or rule. It is evident that, in many cases this occurs but where it does not it would be good practice to provide that feedback, including in particular whether advice has been accepted or not (and if not, briefly, the reasons). Clarity of decisions at each point noted in Diagram 1, when made, is important if those consulted are to accept the decision and move on to the next consultation phase.

    In the course of interviews comment was made that, in some instances, when matters are referred to a working group, the stewardship group is not made aware of the result or outcome. Where that occurs it is undesirable. Even though the CSG has a supervisory role in relation to all working groups, stewardship groups should receive timely feedback on progress with, and the results of, working group deliberations for matters they have initiated or referred, or groups they have established. As noted earlier, the information is on the ATO website, available to all. However, best practice would indicate that the agenda for each stewardship group would include progress and outcomes of matters referred to working groups, as part of their stewardship responsibilities.

    Minutes – the time taken

    The survey feedback was that records of consultation are provided in a timely manner. As Table 8 shows, 72% of respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with timeliness of the provision of the record of consultations. However 6% were dissatisfied and 22% neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.

    This indicates that, while there is not a significant issue to be addressed, the position could improve in some stewardship groups. Interviews confirmed that, in some, members have to wait until just before the next meeting to receive the draft minutes. That does not accord with best practice, nor does it meet the COAG transparency standard.

    Interviewees reported that, in relation to at least one stewardship group, the minutes and action items are circulated about four-six weeks after the meeting. This is a standard that others should meet.

    As a principle for all stewardship groups, minutes should provide a clear record of the matter discussed and the outcomes of those discussions, presented in plain English, rather than an attributed record of the discussion. Some, but not all minutes meet this principle.

      Last modified: 22 Sep 2015QC 46926